"A process which doesn't end."
The possibilities pricked him at once. He ordered another drink and a pint of Wild Goose for the girl. The girl, he thought. What did she say her name was? Faye? Faye something?
"A process," he said. "Could it be a ritual that doesn't end?"
"Sure. It's a connotation. It could apply to anything."
A ritual that doesn't end, Jack pondered.
"How was the girl murdered?" Faye Rowland asked.
"You don't want to know."
"No, but I need to know once I start digging into current U.S. cult activities. Any detail you can give me might help make a tie."
Jack hesitated. It was one image he'd never clean from his head. "She was eviscerated," he said.
Faye Rowland didn't flinch. "Was her heart missing?"
"No," Jack replied with raised brow.
"Were any of her organs missing?"
"No. Some of her organs were removed and placed around her on the bed. But none of them were taken."
"What about her head? Was her head missing?"
Jesus. "No. Nothing was missing. Why?"
"Organs and heads are big with several devil-worship cults in this country, particularly heads.
They believe the heads of their adversaries give them power. Was the murder victim baptized?"
"I don't know. What difference does it make?"
"Unsanctified sacrifices are big too. There was one group in Texas a few years ago they murdered six unbaptized babies before the FBI busted them. They'd make good-luck charms out of their fingers and toes. Severed pudenda, particularly those of infants, were considered a supreme protection from enemies."
Jack ordered yet another drink. He had a feeling it was going to be a long night.
"What is this shit?" Ginny whispered.
Veronica didn't know. Gilles and Marzen served "dinner" at the long linened table. Khoronos sat appropriately at the head.
"It's sashimi," he said.
Plates of pale strips of meat were placed before them, white pieces, reddish pieces, and yellow lumps. A smell wafted up.
"This is raw fish," Veronica whispered.
Ginny nearly spat out her Evian. "I refuse to eat r "
"Optimum sustenance for the artist," Khoronos explained. "Eka, toro, and uni rich in nutrients, amino acids, and omega lipids. Recent studies have concluded that sashimi increases intelligence, memory and creative thought."
"Yeah, but it's raw fish," Ginny complained aloud.
"Try it. The ika, the squid, is particularly good."
Squid, Veronica thought. Jolly.
Marzen and Gilles began to eat, wielding chopsticks like experts. The servings were huge.
Veronica plucked at her pieces, then chose a red slab, looked at it leerily, and ate it.
"Toro," Khoronos told her. "Fatty tuna belly. Good toro costs hundreds of dollars per pound."
"Tuna shit could cost hundreds of dollars per pound too, but I wouldn't eat it," Ginny said under her breath.
"Be polite," Veronica whispered. "Actually it's not bad."
"Sashimi increases the sex drive," Gilles pointed out, then inserted two pieces at once into his mouth.
Marzen looked at Veronica. "Increasing zah ability to orgasm."
"In that case," Ginny ventured. She fumbled with her chopsticks and raised one of the yellow collops. It looked like a lump of snot.
Khoronos smiled. "Go ahead."
Ginny ate it, paused, then swallowed. "It's kind of mushy but not bad." Then she put another piece in her mouth.
"What you are eating," Marzen defined, "iss called uni."
Gilles: "It is the raw gonad of the sea urchin."
Ginny wailed close-mouthed. She transferred the uni from her mouth to a napkin, then fled the table.
Khoronos, Marzen, and Gilles laughed. "Not adventurous," Khoronos concluded. "The human aesthete must never falter at a new experience."
What does raw sea urchin gonad have to do with the human aesthete? Veronica wondered. She tried a piece herself. It tasted...funny.
"Tell us about love, Ms. Polk," Khoronos abruptly bid.
All eyes turned to her. She could not fathom an answer.
"What is truth?" Khoronos asked next. "What is truth really?"
"I don't understand," Veronica said.
"It's love, isn't it?" Khoronos suggested.
"I've never thought of it that way."
"Love is in zah heart," Marzen offered.
Khoronos again: "Real creativity is rooted in the heart. Be transitive."
Right, Veronica thought. These people are nuts. "Okay. Real creativity is rooted in the heart.
Truth is love. Therefore, creativity is truth."
"Exactly." Khoronos turned to the Frenchman. "Gilles, go and see if Ms. Thiel is all right."
Gilles left the table. Khoronos went on, "Creativity is all we can be; that is, if we want to be real.
Those below us are too subject to the frail externi of the world."
"You're saying that most people are false?"
"Yes. Indeed. It's only the artists who preserve the real truth of humanity."
"Vee are zah heralds," Marzen added. "Vee are zah portents."
Then a pause, as finely placed as a brick in a vast wall. Khoronos asked: "Ms. Polk, have you ever been in love?"
Heralds, she thought. Portents. She sensed a point, but Khoronos' last question bushwhacked her.
"I was once," she answered. "At least I think I was."
"You confuse physicality with spirit," Marzen said.
"To know love, you must bring them together. One without the other is a lie, isn't it?"
"I guess," Veronica said. Already the conversation darkened her. It brought up ghosts of Jack.
"You don't love yourself enough to love someone else."
God, he was rude. "How do you know?" she challenged.
"I'm merely being substantive. It's clear, though, that you lack something within yourself."
"What about you?" she dared. "Have you ever been in love?"
Khoronos' piercing eyes seemed to float before the question. "Many times," he said in a lowered voice.
All the while, Marzen, the German, had been eating, as if he'd heard this discussion repeatedly in the past. A brief glance from Khoronos, then, commanded him to leave the room.
Now Veronica felt more on guard. She tried to change the subject. "Isn't Amy Vandersteen coming?"
"In the morning," Khoronos said. "Don't change the subject."
"I'm uncomfortable with the subject."
"Because you make me feel like I've made a mistake."
"In coming here?"
He was putting her against herself, making her fight her own twin. Where the hell had Ginny gone? Why couldn't she come back and save her from this...interrogation?
Instead of responding, Veronica stared Khoronos down.
"I love anyone who is true," he said. "I want you to be true."
What did that mean? He must know of the power he had over her. Was it really truth that compelled him, or cruelty?
"Why are you sad?" he asked.
She felt limp in her seat. "I used to be in love with this guy, but I ended the relationship, and now I'm not sure if I did the right thing."
"Only you can decide if you did the right thing. How do you propose to do that?"
Khoronos rose at the end of the table, his face clement in some kind of boundless what?
Wisdom? Or was it truth, the sum of wisdom? That's what Veronica sensed in him now an utter lack of falsehood. Here was a man who truly did love.
Here was a man who knew.
"I'm sorry to have upset you," he said through a voice that issued like smoke. "You are a great artist."
"I'm not a "
"And once you are able to see yourself, and your desires, in a more truthful light, you will be even greater."
"I " she muttered.
"You will be timeless, Ms. Polk." The subtle, incised smile touched her like a caress. "You will be immortal."
The Mitchell's Brewery clock ticked toward midnight.
"I better get going," Faye Rowland said. "I live in Tylersville that's fifty miles away and I've got to drive to the LOC in the morning."
Jack, somehow, had stayed sober. Getting plowed in front of the girl would not make for much of a professional first impression. He admired her perseverance; she'd suffered an hour's drive just to get briefed early and save time.
"You can stay at my place if you want," he offered, then regretted it. She probably thinks I'm putting the make on her. "I've got several extra rooms, and I live a bit closer than Tylersville."
"About a quarter of a mile."
"Okay," she said. "I mean, if it's no trouble. I'd get an earlier start in the morning if I stayed tonight."
"No problem." Jack motioned for the check.
"Is the clock two hours fast?" Craig asked in disbelief.
"Lately I've been turning into a Scotch-filled pumpkin at midnight." Jack paid up, and when the girl was out of earshot, he whispered, "It's not what it looks like."
"Sure," Craig said, "And I'm a virgin. Later."
Jack took Faye up the short steps to the street. A used-book store across the street had a poster in the window: "Big Brother is watching you." Lately, Jack felt watched everywhere he went, overlooked by his own doubts in himself. But tonight he was impressed; this was the first night in a while he'd left the Undercroft sober.
They drove in Faye's car, a big red Chevy clunker that sounded like a Russian tank. He showed her into his row house and flicked on the lights. "I got three rooms downstairs. Two I rent to college kids, but they're on break." He showed her the spare. "Linen closet's there, shower's there.
I'm upstairs if you need anything. And thanks for doing this for us."
She kicked off her shoes. "Researching a ritual murder is a bit more interesting than running state unemployment fluctuations all day. I'm happy for the change." But when she set her briefcase down, Jack noticed the wedding ring on her hand. How could he have missed that?
He tried not to act surprised. "Oh, and feel free to use the phone if you want to let your husband know where you are."
She looked remiss, then laughed. "Oh, this?" she said, and held up her hand. "I'm not married, I just hate being pestered. I only wear it to keep the predators away."
Jack gave a sad smile. The comment swept him, and his mood crashed. Honey, he thought, you're gonna need a lot more than that to protect you from the predators in this town. Just ask Shanna Barrington.
"Good night," he said.
"Good night," Khoronos said.
Veronica turned at her bedroom door. "See you in the morning."
"Remember, Ms. Polk, you're also here to create. Start giving your project some thought."
They'd sat up for hours after dinner, discussing only artistic formalities. Their conversation was harmless, but this, she knew, was part of Khoronos' tactic. He'd sown his psychological seeds at dinner; now was the time to let them grow. What did he want of her? Just a painting? Formalistic chitchat? The man, and his cryptic motives, distracted her. She had no idea what to paint.
"Dreams," Khoronos remarked now. He was a shadow on the landing, faceless.
"What?" Veronica asked.
"Pleasant dreams." He drifted back downstairs.
Dreams, she thought, and closed her door. Had he meant that she should use her dreams as her models? She'd painted many of her dreams in the past, but lately she'd stopped that. It seemed indulgent, selfish even. Love is in zah heart, Marzen had said. Creativity is rooted in the heart, Khoronos had added. Was it really an indulgence, then? Dreams were manifestations wholly of one's self in a sense, of the heart. Khoronos had even implied that all true art had its corms in the indulgence of the artist. Seeing, and the intricacies through which one saw, meant everything.
Indulgence is vision, she thought, and giggled. She liked the sound of that.
She felt odd somehow. She turned off the lamp and let the moonlight seep in. The open French doors admitted a warm breeze. A moment later, she was taking off her clothes.
What am I doing? she asked herself. She stood nude before the doors. Anyone who might be out back could look up and see her. But the impression appealed to her: being viewed in secret.
Indulgence is vision. I'm just being indulgent. She giggled again. Then she stepped out onto the veranda.
It felt good here nude in the open air of night. She parted her legs and let the faint breeze touch her sex. That felt good too. Now she was symbologizing: the night was her lover, the moon its eyes, the breeze its hands which traced up and down her body. Yes, that's what she wanted a faceless lover, a stranger full of primordial desire. No formalities, no bogus social games or strained inhibitions. Her mind at once filled with raw images of sex. Rough but seeking hands ranging her skin, male weight atop her body, a mouth sucking her nipples till they hurt. She tried to put a face on the lover, but it didn't work, as though a lack of identity was what made the fantasy truth. It didn't need a face to be real. All it needed was a heart and a cock, a hot curved cock stuck in her up to the balls. Here was vision, alright turning fantasy to an inner truth.
Khoronos had helped her see herself more honestly. That's how she felt just then: being fucked by a new sense of truth.
Next she was whining softly. When enough of her consciousness leaked out of the muse, she discovered her finger burrowed deep into her sex. What am I doing! she screamed in thought.
She slipped back into the bedroom, her sweat now a bath of embarrassment. What if someone had seen? I must be nuts!